Insights by Goldie
Sound Consumer | September 2002
by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist
Many PCC shoppers are pleased with the ever-widening array of new products, including more choices of beers and wines, healthier choices for snacking or "fun-foods," gourmet items, international cuisines and more healthful convenience foods, canned, frozen and packaged.
Others are concerned, sometimes deeply so, to find items being carried at PCC that they do not believe have any place in a natural foods store. In response to several letters and calls in the past couple of months, I'll discuss two items that have raised concerns with some consumers.
Splenda in the glass
Hansen's Diet Sodas, in five flavors, are the only "diet" beverage at the co-op, shelved along with various "spritzers," sodas, waters and juices. They are sweetened with Splenda®.
Splenda is the trademarked name used in the United States for sucralose, a non-caloric sweetener developed and patented by a large sugar-processing conglomerate in the UK. Sucralose has been widely used for several years in Europe. There are very few safety studies published (fewer than 20) and most of those on animals. The U.S. Food Drug Administration (FDA), influenced in part by the fact that the sweetener was used abroad, permitted sucralose to be sold as a non-caloric sweetener in this country in 1998.
Compared to the very deep controversies that surrounded Nutra Sweet and virtually all other artificial sweeteners, past and present, Splenda has led a mostly charmed life in the past four years in the U.S. Splenda is now in a wide array of popular diet foods and diet beverages.
It is probable that many who use artificially sweetened foods and beverages pay little attention to "which" sweetener is used — as long as it drops the calories and tastes okay. In fact, I've noticed that the term "Nutra Sweet" has begun to be used in conversation generically, to mean artificial sweetener in the way someone says "Kleenex" when they just mean "tissue."
Yet for true aficionados of non-caloric sweeteners, Splenda's taste is said to be most similar to sugar, whatever it is used in, with less aftertaste. The marketing material states it is 600 times sweeter than sugar. Stability in storage, as well as in baking, freezing and high heating, is a strong selling point to manufacturers.
Sucralose is not the result of genetic engineering. It is produced by chlorination of refined sugar (sucrose), which chemically alters the whole structure of the sucrose molecules, switching three chlorine atoms for three hydroxyl groups. Hansen's doesn't present the sweetener as "natural," but it also avoids referring to it as "artificial."
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) does classify sucralose as an artificial sweetener. We agree. However, in its on-line "Chemical Cuisine," a chart listing and discussing the good, bad and ugly facts about all sorts of additives, CSPI goes on to say "it is safer than saccharin and cyclamate and doesn't raise the concerns that tests on acesulfame-K (Sunnette®) and aspartame (Nutra Sweet®) have raised."
CSPI frequently puzzles me. I've looked to them for years for guidance on many food issues of concern to consumers, and they've generally seemed to be on target. (They have missed the mark before, however, as with their stance that genetically altered foods don't need mandatory labels because "consumers do not need that information!")
Here, again, CSPI essentially leaves consumers scratching their heads after a second reading of its "advice" on sucralose, wondering "Wait a minute ... what does that really tell me?" CSPI struggled against acesulfame-K, aspartame, cyclymates, and saccharin, as well as olestra and other phony fats. Some writers believe they simply pulled their punches on this one and failed to ask the FDA hard, probing questions or challenge the manufacturer. They need to remember they are established "in the Public Interest." Visit their website at www.cspinet.org.
A very different view is presented by www.holisticmed.com/splenda, which has sections titled "Sucralose Toxicity Information Center," and "Aspartame Toxicity Information Center," among others. Their approach seems to be well reasoned and raises serious charges that there was insufficient pre-market safety data.
They challenge the manufacturer's statements that there is no chemical breakdown of sucralose over time, or during digestion. They state that no evidence is presented that the chlorination action on the sugar is benign, and that it should be thoroughly studied, given the nature of chlorine and its toxic effects in other situations.
These and many other issues are elaborated on at www.mercola.com/2000/dec/3/sucralose_dangers.htm. Commenting on the "statistically significant results" found in a small study done on diabetes patients using Splenda, Dr. Joseph Mercola says "The FDA stated that increases in glycosolation in hemoglobin imply lessening of control of diabetes." But they approved the sweetener. Who's right? Whom does one believe?
Who would name a food "Quorn?" Quorn (Kworn) is produced by Marlow Foods, UK division of the multi-national pharmaceutical company, AstraZeneca. Quirkily named, the quizzical cuisine is a culinary chameleon.
An on-line search found numerous articles about Quorn's identity crisis, as well as a few legal hassles. Quorn's earlier made-up description is "mycoprotein." That's "myco," Greek for mushroom (you knew that, didn't you?) and protein, well, for protein. The problem is, Quorn is not a mushroom. And the manufacturer has agreed to stop saying it is on its future packaging and marketing materials (even though it still has been riding on statements that it is "mushroom-like").
Maybe the company felt that if we learned that Quorn's origins were led as an underground, damp, and particularly noxious fungus, attacking and destroying the root system of wheat in farmers fields, that people might not find it ... appetizing.
They apparently didn't want to call it by it's formal name, Fusarium venenatum. They also resisted stating on the label anything about the fact that the fungus now leads a strange lifecycle, 100 percent spent growing for a few hours in a laboratory vat, in anerobic conditions, forming an intricate mass of fibrous substance, constantly extruded at one end, and fed specified chemical nutrients at the other! Jeez, I wonder why they didn't want to say that?
Quorn is a vegetarian meat-substitute, seasoned and shaped to be faux chicken chunks or ground beef, or whatever the manufacturer desires it to be. It is found in the freezer. Alhough vegetarian, Quorn is not vegan, since it also includes egg white and dairy. The company firmly states the product has no genetically altered ingredients.
Quorn, which has been available in the U.S. for less than six months, is quickly becoming as popular here as it was for a decade-and-a-half in Europe. There are even various Quorn recipe sites on the Internet.
So what's the beef some consumers have with Quorn (other than its dark and shady origins)? Some, apparently still a minority, feel Quorn is about as far from "real" as food can get. After reading background material on Quorn, one woman commented "it's like that food-replicator machine on the old Star Trek series, where you could ask, and get whatever you wanted, but that was sci-fi, and now it sounds kind of like it's here!"
On the other hand, many people who've tried Quorn are very enthusiastic about exactly that aspect, the product's ability to give them what they want: a vegetarian meal with "meatiness," textures and flavors which, some say, is closer to "the real deal" than other meat analogues that are typically based on wheat gluten (seitan) or on soy. They also approve of Quorn's low- fat, high protein profile.
CSPI is not happy with Quorn, however. On the last day of February this year (and again in April) it's petitioned the FDA to reverse approval of Quorn, both for safety studies and to be sure consumers understand what they are buying and aren't misled by inappropriate labels.
CSPI points out that the product labels describe it as "an unassuming member of the mushroom family, which we ferment as yogurt" when, according to CSPI, "a fungus is about as close to a mushroom as an octopus is to a human." It also states that the FDA's classification of Quorn as "Generally Recognized as Safe (the coveted so-called GRAS status) was premature, relied solely on the company's statements, and that this is a totally new type of fungus that consumers need to know about. (Other sources state this type of fungus can, under improper laboratory conditions, result in formation of toxic fungal forms.
The manufacturer, aware of this, assured the FDA that this has been carefully addressed in its manufacturing operation).
Even though the company assured the FDA that there were very few adverse reactions reported abroad and none serious, CSPI pointed out this is new territory, with a new protein, and that proteins are capable of creating powerful allergic reactions. CSPI has therefore established a separate website for consumers to report Quorn health problems (www.quorncomplaints.org). All reports are kept confidential, but the U.S. reports will be furnished to the FDA, and foreign reports to the appropriate health agency in that country.
It's a brave new eater's world!
Quorn was brought into PCC due to numerous requests by PCC shoppers.